The Baptism of the Lord is a major feast day in the Christian East. Referred to as Theophany, this feast day in the churches of the Byzantine tradition is second in importance only to the feast of Christ’s Resurrection — Pascha or Easter.
Observed on 6 January, Theophany exemplifies how the liturgical life of the church expresses the reality of the Incarnation and its intimate relationship to God’s creation.
At the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove and the voice of God the Father boomed from heaven: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt 3:17).
The Holy Trinity was thus revealed to creation.
There are four main themes in the celebration of Theophany: the manifestation of the Holy Trinity; the illumination of Christ the Light, the incarnate one who comes into the world; the sanctification of water through Jesus’ immersion into the Jordan River; and the sanctification of all of creation, imbued with the presence of God through Jesus’ descent into the waters.
Each feast day in the Byzantine liturgical calendar has its own image, or icon, which is more than just an illustration or depiction of a person or event. Iconography is a “canonized” art form in that true icons must be painted following certain established canons of line, color and composition. And the iconographer must be a believer who lives a chaste life of prayer.
To unpack the meaning of an icon in the Byzantine tradition, therefore, is to enter fully into the mystery of the person or event being commemorated and to learn its relevance to our life and time.
Iconography evolved from the use of images in the Classical period, depicting people and events related to the life of Christ, to the painting of devotional images of Christ, the Mother of God and the saints with a style influenced by the cultures, philosophies and religions of the eastern Mediterranean, then the center of Western culture and civilization.
The Council of Trullo (691-692) began to define the tenets of iconography. What became important was not just what was being portrayed but how it was being portrayed. Line, color, composition became a delivery system for communicating theology. The iconographer was to remain anonymous, deferring any personal acclaim to the theology being portrayed. While there was still room for creativity and even ingenuity, this license remains within the bounds of the canons of iconography.
The Seventh Ecumenical Council (787) articulated the spiritual and theological justification for iconography, freeing all religious imagery from the tyranny of the heresy of iconoclasm. Iconography developed first in the Greek-speaking cultures of the Byzantine Empire and then spread to the Slavs of Central and Eastern Europe in the 10th century, where iconography took on its fullest flowering, especially among the monks.
Iconography, like the liturgical theology of the Eastern churches, ushers our attention toward our death and life eternal. Icons that depict events, such as the Baptism of Christ, have several areas of meaning in their composition. The two fundamental areas are described as the hieratic and the narrative.
Christ is always depicted in the hieratic zone, which is usually the center or top portion of the picture plane. He is depicted as static and frontal, with little or no indication of motion or emotion. In this way, iconography underscores the Divinity of Christ. It symbolizes the truth that God is a perfect being who always was, is and will be. Because of this perfection, God does not change; he is not disturbed by passions.
In the icon of Theophany, Jesus is in the hieratic pose: at the center of the composition, fully vertical with only the slight gesture of blessing.
The narrative area of an icon, or the lower plane, depicts the reality of time and place that we know on Earth, which is in a constant state of flux, of becoming and perfecting. The figures in this zone show movement and gestures of wonderment, reverential awe and being overcome by the presence of the Divine.
In the Theophany icon, we see the angels in a state of wonderment and awe. St. John the Baptist, to Jesus’ right in the image, also expresses movement and awe. He places his hand on the top of Jesus’ head in the gesture of a laying on of hands, thus transmitting to Jesus his own prophetic office: The first words of Jesus after his baptism and at the start of his public ministry are the very message of John: “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mt 4:17).
Also surrounding Jesus in the icon are elements of nature: water, rocks, sky. The coming of Christ into our reality — whether in a cave in Bethlehem or the Jordan River — is a sanctification of nature itself.
Today, on this feast of Theophany, consider the beauty of God’s creation, and how the very elements of matter — water, fire, earth and air — are sanctified by and imbued with the presence of the Godhead. Consider, too, the Christian custom of holy water, and in the Eastern tradition especially the Great Blessing of Water. This blessed water is used to bless all things: churches, homes, sacramentals and people. Treasure this holy water, and keep it with you throughout the year.
Father Thomas J. Loya is a priest of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Parma and an iconographer. He is pastor of Annunciation Byzantine Catholic Church in Homer Glen, Illinois.